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Walk into the night without fear

Saturday, 7 March 2009 - 1:33am IST | Place: Bangalore | Agency: dna

Fear of the dark, drilled into women for centuries, is hard to shake off completely. Just look at the young women who clutch their mobile phones.

On International Women’s Day, a group of Bangalore women plan to spend the night in the Majestic area. “We’re going to roam, eat and sleep on the streets,” one of them said to me, and added, “if the cops allow us. If not, we’ll spend the night in the police station.”

I’ve been wondering whether to join them for old times’ sake. After all, as a woman and a journalist I have walked many streets at night alone — and I didn’t need to ask the cops for permission. I would walk to my hostel after dining out. I would take autos at midnight after watching late night movies alone.

In over 30 years of living in Bangalore I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have felt even mildly unsafe on the streets. I have been at risk of physical danger in public precisely twice: once in the afternoon and once at 4 am.

I have always turned down chivalrous offers of the “let me drop you home safely” variety and I have never carried protection in my handbag — not the kind that defends one against assault, anyway! No knife, spray or chilli powder. I believe that once you have vanquished fear, your courage is your best safeguard.

Last winter, after walking out of a jazz concert in Cubbon Park at 10 pm, I skirted the road past the cricket stadium before turning into Cubbon Road. I felt as little trepidation as I had in the early ’80s when I would often walk down the very same stretch at roughly the same time.

The streets were practically empty, those days, when I would stroll after dinner to the house where a bunch of my male friends lived. I realised that time hadn’t weakened my resistance to fear of the dark.

The only ones who fear the dark are women and children. Both are afraid of things that go bump in the night. Both are considered vulnerable and in need of protection. “Go play,” says the big strong man, patting the woman gently on the head, “but follow the rules of the game. Make sure you stay within the school compound. No straying outside during school hours.” If she breaks the rules or scales the school wall, she loses the right to be protected.

This sums up the attitude of people in authority, an attitude that women over the years have constantly come up against. Although the law lays down punishment for anyone who lays a hand on a woman without her permission, the enforcers of the law often imply that what she wears and why she is out at night alone are also relevant. These are the unwritten rules of the School for Decorous Women.

The young women who plan to overrun the streets on March 8 don’t lay much store by decorum. They are calling their event “Take back the Night”, the name of a historic night march of 5,000 women against pornography that took place in the US in 1977, which has now become an international event (with no fixed date) protesting against violence on women.

Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin spoke, in 1977, of the importance to women of “freedom of movement”, which she believed was a pre-condition to freedom of speech. Without having read Dworkin I began, in my early twenties, to push the boundaries of what were considered acceptable and “safe” for women. The more I pushed, the stronger I felt. The limits I set for myself were my own, not imposed on me.

Sadly, it is often women who curtail their own freedom of movement or that of their daughters. “You can’t be too careful,” they say. Yes you can. There is such a thing as being too careful. It can lead to paranoia. The recent attacks on young women, many in broad daylight, should cause concern but should not generate unreasonable fear.

It is rather intriguing that they were targeted apparently because they wore western clothes and spoke English. Bangalore has been used to western clothes since the ’70s; I’ve been wearing them since 1978 without incident.

Why this sudden reaction? The attackers could be members of a lawless organisation, operating according to plan. They could equally be individual thugs, “inspired” by irresponsible politicians’ remarks about provocatively dressed women (remember the comment about noodle straps?), who’ve decided to punish women for breaking the school rules.

One shouldn’t confuse them with men who paw and grope women on the streets. Gropers are even-handed in their approach — whether women wear saris or trousers makes no difference to them. And they certainly do not go about punching or spitting at women or trying to rip their clothes off.

Fear of the dark, drilled into women for centuries, is hard to shake off completely. Just look at the young women who clutch their mobile phones as though they were security blankets when they wait in bus shelters at night. I bet that the street-walking women on March 8 will not leave home without their mobiles. Come on, chicks, don’t be chicken! Walk cell-free into the open night.

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